At United Dumplings, the first rule of dumpling-making is that there are no hard-and-fast rules — except that all the dumplings are made from scratch and need to taste delicious. And so, the Bernal Heights restaurant puts mozzarella cheese in one dumpling and Korean barbecue in another. It also serves what chef Sandy Zheng promises to be some of the best, and most strictly traditional, xiao long bao and shengjian bao in the city.
Located at 525 Cortland Avenue, the new dumpling restaurant is a collaboration between Zheng, who also owns the Excelsior northern Chinese standout Beijing Restaurant, and her business partner Julia Zhu. The restaurant officially opens for business on Wednesday, October 14.
Originally, Zheng and Zhu had planned to open the restaurant in late March, which, of course, didn’t happen. As with so many new restaurants stymied by the coronavirus shutdown, the past six months have been a blur of permitting and inspection delays, stalled construction, and shifting safety requirements. The one silver lining, Zheng says, is that she was able to do plenty of beta testing to get her recipes dialed in — and to make sure all of the dishes travel well during this time when takeout is still the primary dining option.
For now, United Dumplings will hold off on launching indoor service, but it will set up least five tables in the curbside outdoor dining area that Zheng’s father constructed for the restaurant. At full capacity, the 1,000-square-foot dining room will eventually seat about 40.
Within the constellation of dumpling-centric Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, United Dumplings promises to be a spot that defies categorization. Typically, there’s a divide between so-called “traditional” Chinese restaurants and the more hybridized (or “fusion”) spots like, say, Mission Chinese Food. Zheng, however, doesn’t see the two approaches as being in opposition at all. So, on the one hand, one of the items she’s proudest of is her xiao long bao, which she traveled to Shanghai and Hangzhou last year to master, studying under an award-winning xiao long bao chef. There are three versions of the soup-filled dumplings on the United Dumplings menu: one with pork; one with chicken; and one of the giant, Instagram-friendly varieties that you sip with a straw. They’re all made in the most traditional way, Zheng says, down to the secret ingredients she puts in the filling and the precise number of pleats needed to seal up the thin, delicate wrappers.
United Dumplings will also be one of a handful of restaurants in the city to serve sheng jian bao (aka SJB), the juicy pork buns known for their outrageously crunchy, pan-fried bottoms — again, prepared with a strict adherence to protocol that should please any traditionalist. There’s also a purely Chinese-style dish called “California Beef Noodle Soup,” which is Zheng’s nostalgic re-creation of the beef noodle soup served at a chain restaurant in China by that name — it was wildly popular when she and Zhu were kids. (To this day, neither one has any idea what connection the dish, or the restaurant, was supposed to have with California.) And there are plenty of boiled dumplings with typical, northern Chinese–style fillings: pork with napa cabbage, beef with celery, and so forth.
But it’s when the restaurant departs from the standard dumpling house playbook that things get really interesting: There are boiled dumplings filled with salty-sweet ground beef and onion that taste like the bulgogi you might order at a Korean restaurant. There are toothsome northern Chinese hand-pulled noodles, available in many traditional preparations, but also as part of a mad-scientist creation that combines raw shredded vegetables, chili oil, a sweet-and-savory secret sauce, and — the biggest surprise — fresh guacamole. Zhu likens it to a Mexican-inspired take on zhajiang mian, a classic northern Chinese noodle dish.
Perhaps the dumplings most emblematic of Zheng’s approach are her taco-inspired Mission chicken potstickers, which again borrow a page from Mexican cuisine, combining ground chicken, sweet corn, and cheese for the filling. The potstickers wind up having a layer of crispy, caramelized cheese on the bottom, not unlike what you’d get at a new-school quesabirria joint, and they’re served with a creamy, sour cream–based dipping sauce in lieu of the usual soy sauce or vinegar.
To Zheng, there just isn’t anything unusual about the fact that she’s taken an interest in these other cuisines and incorporated their flavors into her cooking. She has lived in San Francisco for 14 years; she’s raised three kids here who love everything from sushi to pasta to tacos. The one dish on the new restaurant’s menu they always ask her to make? Those Mission potstickers.
In that sense, United Dumplings might be seen as a perfect encapsulation of the Chinese immigrant experience in San Francisco. As Zhu puts it, “We’re the immigrants who kept our traditions but also embraced a lot of new things.”
United Dumplings opens officially on Wednesday, October 14 and will be open for takeout and outdoor dining 11 a.m.–3 p.m. and 5–9 p.m. every day except Tuesdays. See the menu below: